In the waiting area of the offices of Judson Memorial Church by Washington Square Park, a boy of around three or four sits on the floor, diligently creating a work of art with crayons for the wall behind him, which is filled with children’s drawings of houses, animals, families, and other happy scenes. His hair, a deep black, is cut in that bowl shape that looks precious on children, but ridiculous on anyone over the age of, say, 7. His skin is the color of burnt umber, as if his face were molded from a mineral-rich clay soil that has absorbed the sun’s rays over countless days, holding the power of the sunlight at the ready for when it is needed most.
He doesn’t speak any English, but he doesn’t need to. The young woman in her 20’s who is minding him speaks Spanish with only a hint of an accent that betrays that she isn’t a native speaker. “Cats eat rats,” the boy says.
“But dogs don’t eat cats,” she adds, looking over his shoulder at the drawing. “Do you know where penguins come from?”
“The other side of the world,” he answers smartly.
“Antarctica,” she smiles.
“I learned it from a cartoon,” and when a young man approaches, the boy turns to the new arrival and says, “I drew a giraffe with glasses.”
“Does she have a court date, do you know?” asks the young woman in English.
“She has a hearing on the 25th. That’s a Monday. She has to fill out a 589.”
Turning back to the boy, the woman says in a sweet, comforting voice, “Abner, we’re going to return you to your mother.”
Form I-589 is the Application for Asylum and Withholding of Removal that immigrants undergoing deportation proceedings must fill out if they hope to have a fighting chance of staying in this country. An immigration attorney, speaking on background, said that immigration authorities used to look at those applications with a certain measure of charity—their eyes were trained to look for the strengths of an application. More recently, what with the policies enacted by the current administration in the White House, the review process has become much more aggressive, where allegedly a typo is reason enough for the slam of a rubber stamp: “Denied”.
Ravi Ragbir is determined to keep that from happening. He is the Executive Director of the New Sanctuary Coalition, an organization that advocates on behalf of immigrants and operates out of Judson Memorial Church, a sanctuary church in New York City.
“We believe no one should be deported. For us, we don’t draw lines. Whoever comes to us we help them. Because of our vision, we are able to help everyone,” says Ragbir.
Though the determination and passion is evident in his voice, he harbors no illusions of what he and his team are up against: “The majority of the people who come to us don’t have a lawyer, but they still have to go to court. The consequence of going to court without a lawyer is deportation. With just filling out an application, it means their time in court is extended. Without that, the judge has no choice but to order them deported. We give them an opportunity to find more time to get an attorney, but during that time, we also work with them to prepare their paperwork. Private lawyers are very expensive. Pro bono lawyers are free, but they are overwhelmed. It is extremely hard to find good representation even if you are paying.”
The free resources his organization offers have found many takers. The New Sanctuary Coalition benefits immigrants from all over the city, throughout the state, and has even attracted a couple of calls from across the country from people in desperate straits. Given the volume of the workload, Ragbir and his team eagerly welcome New Yorkers looking to volunteer. Lawyers, paralegals, anyone with professional legal experience will have a red carpet rolled out for their arrival.
The New Sanctuary Coalition also needs bilingual volunteers, particularly for Spanish-speakers. But, really, anyone who wishes to express their support for immigrants in an active way is most welcome, especially on Tuesday nights at 5:30 pm when the Coalition plays host to the Pro Se Clinic.
“Every Tuesday, we have over 120 people come to us for help who do not have representation, who are facing this crisis,” Ragbir explains. One of those people was the wife of Baba Sillah, 47, a Bronx resident who emigrated from Gambia 26 years ago. Working as a porter on the Upper West Side, Baba was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.). However, because of the activism done on Baba’s behalf by the New Sanctuary Coalition, Governor Cuomo caught wind of the situation and issued a pardon that eventually swayed the immigration judge to release him last month.
“Mr. Baba Sillah’s detention by I.C.E. threatened to take him from his wife and five children and was a profound injustice that undermined everything we believe in this country,” Governor Cuomo told the press.
None of that would have happened if Baba’s wife hadn’t come to the Pro Se Clinic. Ragbir realizes New Yorkers are always on the go, so he hopes the timing of the clinic will make it easier for those with a busy schedule. “After their jobs, if they want to volunteer, they can come to us on Tuesday nights. They can help noncitizens fill out their 589’s (the asylum application), or any of their other documents, or just by talking to them. We are here for them and we need people there to help.”
In addition to filling out documents and providing company, volunteers can expect to make calls, write letters, and care for children while their parents are busy securing their futures. There are also opportunities to accompany immigrants to their court hearings and I.C.E. check-ins, a practice known as “accompaniment” which shows community support to immigration authorities.
If you would like to volunteer, you can call (646) 395-2925 or email Supervising Coordinator Sara Gozalo at Sara@NewSanctuaryNYC.org